Panetta: Drone flights over Iran will “absolutely” continue

Zachary Keck – Examiner December 15, 2011

In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the United States will “absolutely” continue using stealth unmanned spy drones to collect intelligence on Iran. 

Panetta’s comments come just over a week after Iran first announced that it had shot down a stealth U.S. spy drone-the RQ-170- that was violating its airspace. Tehran said the aircraft had suffered minimal damaged during the crash and was being probed for intelligence purposes.

U.S. officials confirmed that Iran was in possession of the drone but disputed that Iran had brought down the aircraft saying mechanical failures had grounded it. They also doubted Iran’s claims that the RQ-170 had sustained minimal damaged during the crash, noting that U.S. officials lost communication with the aircraft at a high altitude.  Some officials did reveal that spy drones operating out of a U.S. base in Afghanistan have been used to collect intelligence on Iran for years, and recently there has been a stepped up and multi-dimensional effort to spy on Iran.

 Last Thursday Iran’s Press TV released a video of what appears to be the U.S. spy drone in question looking largely unscathed. The Pentagon refused to comment on the video but officials speaking off the record later confirmed the authenticity of the drone shown in the video. Defense experts disagreed on how important of an intelligence coup the incident is for Iran. Some felt it could be very significant while others said the RQ-170’s technology is already out of date, and still others claiming that it will be extremely difficult for Iran to dissect the drone, let alone using reverse engineering to clone the drone as Iran has vowed to do.

During a press conference on Monday President Obama said the U.S. had filed a formal request for Iran to return the drone. Not surprisingly, Tehran refused to return the aircraft and instead demanded a personal apology from President Obama for the United States spy drone efforts against it. Tehran also filed a formal complaint against the United States at the United Nations and summoned Afghanistan’s ambassador to Iran to protest America’s use Afghan territory to spy on it.  

In an apparently unrelated incident on Wednesday, another U.S. drone crashed near the island nation of Seychelles in the Pacific Ocean. This incident, along with Panetta’s confirming drones will continued to be used in Iran, make it more likely that the failure of the spy drone was caused by mechanical failures. It seems unlikely that the United States would continue deploying spy drones over Iran if they could be shot down.

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